Althea McNish Remembered
The textile designer Althea McNish, a graduate and long-time supporter of the RCA, died on 16 April 2020 at the age of 95. McNish was highly influential in the fields of interior design, fashion and textiles and is often credited with introducing bright colour to a drab, post-war Britain. She was the first woman from the West Indies to rise to international prominence in her field. She designed textiles for Liberty, Heal’s, Hull Traders and Ascher; fabrics for Dior, Balenciaga and the official wardrobe for the Queen’s 1966 visit to Trinidad; and murals for restaurants on the ocean-going liner SS Oriana and the interior of the Port of Spain general hospital.
Born in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, McNish came to the UK in 1951 already an accomplished artist. She attended the RCA having first studied print at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts then the Central School of Art and Design, and obtaining the full Diploma DesRCA in 1958.From pomegranates and hibiscus flowers to palm trees, sunflowers and onions, McNish’s designs brought together natural imagery with her signature vibrant colours. One of McNish’s best selling designs, Golden Harvest, was inspired by a trip she made during her final year at the RCA to the Essex home of her tutor Edward Bawden. Here she encountered a wheat field for the first time, which reminded her of sugar cane plantations from home. Her design featuring a motif based on the drawings she made in the wheat field that day, went into production with Hull Traders in 1959 and continued to be manufactured into the 1970s.Throughout her career McNish’s training in print, which she refined at the RCA, was a great asset. She was able to instruct industrial print manufacturers exactly how to go about reproducing her chosen colours – something they often told her was not possible. Her designs were frequently featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bizarre and can now be found in international museum collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, and Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.
McNish was a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement, active between 1966 and 1972, which sought to celebrate a distinctive Caribbean aesthetic. The impact of her work on future generations of black British artists was recognised by her inclusion in the 2018 BBC documentary ‘Whoever Heard of a Black Artist?’ as well as the 2019 exhibition ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers’ at Somerset House.
McNish and her husband John Weiss were dedicated supporters of the RCA and active members of the Royal College of Art Society. Anne Toomey, Head of Textiles commented: ‘Althea will be greatly missed by the RCA Textiles programme. She is one of our most influential and important alumni. Her contribution to the discipline is significant and she has been tremendously supportive of our graduating students over many years through her annual Prize for Colour. A pioneer in so many ways Althea was a great role model to many textile designers making their way in the worlds of fashion and interiors. She was remarkable and the Textiles programme is proud to celebrate her.’
The Prize for Colour helped graduating students make the first steps in their careers and continued McNish’s legacy of innovation and playful experimentation. For textile and homeware designer and RCA Specialist Technical Instructor in Printed Textiles Jonna Saarinen (MA Textiles, 2011), the award helped her manufacture and launch her first collection in 2011. She recalls: ‘Althea and her husband John Weiss were so kind to me, helping me with their guidance and wisdom, these words are something I have carried with me ever since. It was so inspiring to hear about the beginning of her career and how it developed over the years, this gave me the confidence to take the leap and continue working on my own after I left the RCA.’Emma Bradbury (MA Textiles, 2010), who now provides art and brand direction for Kiss House and is an arts educator for a Reading based arts charity, reflects on the impact of the prize: ‘The prize gave me the confidence to believe in myself and continue to experiment with colour. My career has changed routes since leaving the RCA but the thread that binds them all together is my use of colour. It brings me so much joy to share my love of colour and watch children play and experiment with it.’Crimson Rose O'Shea (MA Textiles, 2016), who recently founded her own label Crimson Rose specialising in printed and colourful womenswear, was honoured to receive the prize: ‘It really meant a lot for colour to be recognised as a strength in my work by such an esteemed and pioneering designer as Althea McNish. Colour is at the essence of everything I do in my creative practice. I spent many hours in the dye lab and print room at the RCA expanding my knowledge and exploring the use of colour in my work.’Angharad McLaren (MA Textiles, 2006), now a senior lecturer in textile design at Nottingham Trent University, recalled: ‘I was so thrilled and thankful to be recognised by Althea for the use of colour in my RCA collection, it really helped boost my confidence and recognise the value of my approach. I remember speaking with her at the RCA show about our shared passion for bringing colourful textile joy into the world; her vivid, creative legacy and dedication to supporting design is truly inspiring and remarkable.’